Shashidhar Nanjundaiah | This election in India challenged the narrative of trust & distrust

From the look on the faces of Rahul Gandhi and Mallikarjun Kharge at the June 4 press conference as captured and amplified by our media platforms, an uninitiated observer might mistakenly think the Congress Party had won the general election. The statements from the party’s leaders, too, reflect this euphoria: “This is both a political and a moral defeat for (Narendra) Modi,” declared Congress leader Jairam Ramesh. “It’s time to pick up your bags and head to the Himalayas.”

Politically, the INDIA bloc is claiming it rescued democracy and the Constitution. True. But there is a little more to the phenomenon.

Mr Ramesh found at least a partial vindication later that day. In Varanasi, a constituency of nearly 20 lakh voters, Mr Modi won by a margin of 1.5 lakh votes, while up the road in Rae Bareli, a constituency of less than 10 lakh voters, Rahul Gandhi won by an astounding 3.9 lakh votes. The mere re-insertion of the checks-and-balances process into the system seems to be a cause for celebration, yet a comparison begs several questions. After early counts showed a robust performance by INDIA, by the afternoon, when one of my sources said the Election Commission was delaying the counting, the numbers began to differ across YouTube channels, although they eventually fell in line, more or less.

A widespread suspicion of election malfunction continues to lurk, going by social media comments. The chief election commissioner chose to dismiss this declined trust in the form of a poorly penned poem. He even categorised the “mischievous narratives” under a set of M-words (M is the letter of the month, it seems) to watch for -- muscle, money, misinformation and MCC violations -- terming the allegations a “design” of “fake narratives” that had emerged to undermine the election process. This is a surprising counter, since fuelling baseless suspicions about the election process would only precipitate in widespread abstention stemming from voters’ mistrust in the system, thus hurting the challengers.

Essentially, the assertions by our agencies of democracy are exhortations for our faith premised on the idea that despite the fact that the commission’s reluctance to share full voter data, we must continue to exercise our franchise and unwaveringly trust the word of promise. The “Trust Me” narrative also resonates with Mr Modi’s favourite rhetorical strategy for years. In many ways through political rhetoric, the ruling side asks us to trust Mr Modi (and by binary default, therefore, not the Opposition). However, if the same person acts contrarily (for example, denying that his oratory was ever religiously divisive), trust suffers.

These calls for trust have never been more stentorian. In our modern world of scepticism, we are attuned to ask questions that elicit transparent undeniability from sources. Whether it is politicians or agents of democracy, the attempt at dismantling modern structures by pre-modern, monarchic ordains is afoot, not by chance but as a part of the larger revisions of our socio-political framework. Thus, there is a problem we must have with trust.

Similarly, think of the machinations of the exit polls -- a mediated effort that keeps a party in power by allowing them better leverage to negotiate with fair-weather allies. Such short-term tactics may keep the media commercially afloat and a party in power, but the very meaning of news media may have changed in the meantime. We inherently trust news narrations, but the consequence of the derailing of media events like the exit polls damages the credibility of the vehicle of such undemocratic propaganda. That is why media trust is in doldrums in countries where democratic claims prevail. Still, it seems, when trust is in deficit, doubt will do. Is press freedom in India now in decline just because some agency says so? Rather, you need to trust us (not them).

Our world is scrambling to take sides, as binary forms have emerged in notions that were not hitherto seen in binary ways. From vaccines to news reports, accepted modern phenomena have become unstable and debatable. Newsrooms in India grapple with news that arrives, packaged, from official sources. Sometimes, these official sources might deny already reported news, whereupon the platform might use the official sources, not their own report, as the correct version. What happens when there is an erosion of that impersonal, institutional trust that is based in rationality?

The “problem of trust”, as Adam Seligman called it in his 1997 work of that title, is that oftentimes, trust and rationality do not align with each other. This situation is begging demagogues to take advantage. Trust can sweep an inherent irrationality under the veneer of trust; hence, we are more accustomed now more than ever before to political statements like “trust me, I will make it happen (in 50 days or 25 years). But it seems trust can even override truth -- if the promised thing is not accomplished, our trust continues, until a moment of truth, so to speak. Compounding our reliance on trust is the incredulousness of vaccine claims by public health agencies during the Covid-19 pandemic while not completely revealing observations that seemed to be side effects of those vaccines.

Now, we do not know what to trust.

Having cast a vote of warning to the Narendra Modi-run establishment, has India’s citizenry finally begun to distrust? Having traversed a rather long and laborious voyage of trust, sometimes founded on rationality and at other times on irrationality, is it finally returning to a dependence on evidence that seems logical? If so, it may explain the underlying reason why so many of us are heaving a sigh of relief.

( Source : Deccan Chronicle )
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